Freedom, the Civil War, and Its Complicated Legacy (Lecture)

Freedom, the Civil War, and Its Complicated Legacy (Lecture)

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thank you all of you for coming out today it’s good to be here you
know for those who work in parks like Fredericksburg and Manassas Gettysburg is kind of like
coming to Yankee Stadium I don’t like the Yankees part of that, I mean the baseball team Yankees I’m not a fan at all but in fact that
kind of galls me but being here is a big deal and so I’m glad to be
here, I’m very much I’m surprised there are so many of you the Penguins are playing
the Flyers I thought most of you would be home watching the Flyers lose
today but apparently not so but I’m glad you’re here and will spend an hour or so
talking about this war of ours in fact you could easily call this talk why is
the Civil War so damn hard for Americans to deal with it as we all know the last
year especially although those of us who have been in this business have been
wrestling with a public uncomfortable with the Civil War for a very very long
time so today’s talk is this is the hundredth anniversary of the National
Park Service of course as you know this year and you know we have park several
stretch your body and expand your soul in many ways today’s talk is no pictures
it’s an idea talk it’s one to hopefully challenge your mind
so I think if you will how we think about and portray our
history we have the statues of our founders frozen majestically you’re
familiar with those you have priceless artifacts perched carefully in our museums
seemingly surrounded by pillows and bathed in light and if it’s in a park
service museum and It’ll be here for the next forty or fifty years probably
unchanged that’s the way the park service does its stuff when it comes to
museums and things we have some temporary exhibits of Fredericksburg
that we’re put in in 1977 mind you, you know we have Lincoln’s
second inaugural etched on the walls of the Lincoln
memorial we have Mamie and Ike’s bedroom frozen in time simple, pink of course and even our civil war
battlefields when we acquire them for preservation what we do we strip them of
all post-war creations we restore the wartime patterns of forest and field, fence lines, and farm lands and we strip them of life too these farms are no longer
working farms their static their set-pieces we want when we encounter our history
an unchanging stable place thing to look at and think about the monuments this is
a mecca of monuments in America of course the monument of the 63rd New
York is right here and we almost always choose or the veterans chose an
image that captured a moment or a characteristic or a source of their
fame in portraying their monument but of course the 63rd New York was over there
and over there and over there and over there and over there as
well so we like our history to be very simple and now my point is not to argue
against any of those things most of them are unavoidable and most of them in a
way are instructive and sometimes even inspiring but there is a commonality to
all of it and that is that we portray a moment an event or person in very simple
often most flattering form and I would suggest to you then when it comes
to our history americans love simplicity we are addicted to simplicity we love
and embrace simple truisms Washington may not have cut down a cherry tree but
he never told a lie LBJ was the last of the frontier presidents of course he
was not but that’s how we see him Grant was a butcher Lee was noble Gettysburg was
the turning point just an aside about Gettysburg Gettysburg is of course the
focus of everybody’s attention everybody’s know more about Gettysburg
than any other place in the national park system as it relates to
the Civil War and one of my greatest annoyances in my life is that we at Fredericksburg have a great blog that we do call mysteries and conundrums that focuses
on my great stuff about the landscape and things we find in all of that and
in the five or six years since we did that and out of the almost a million people
have visited that site you do you know what the most popular post ever was on
mysteries and conundrums? I was a post about a tree at Gettysburg
that had a bullet in it but in any event Gettysburg was the
turning point now all of these things are ingrained in our culture to a point
where even some of them show up in our curriculum standards of learning but I
ask you today to think about a lot of things and one of them is this think
about the memory of your own life and how it is that you arrange it to understand it
our memory of our lives is always way simpler than the life we actually live
always profoundly so in my life I loved high school high school I hated college and most of
what doesn’t in my experience that doesn’t contribute to that perception
that kind of neat little categorization thatI can tell my children and 30 second
chunks I strip away of course there are parts of college I love and parts of high
school I hated but we always pare things down to the most simple so the
same is true I would suggest for our national memory we compile it into
distinct periods associated with particular people and often particular
values we distill it down to simplicities and those simplicities
become conventional wisdom they often become part of our culture and when they become part of our culture
what happens to them what happens to history that becomes culture it becomes governed
by rigid rules and what happens if you question the truth or fullness of one of
these pieces of america’s conventional wisdom what happens people might start a
petition to have you removed from your position if you work for the national
parks or you get labeled talk a little bit about that later and the Civil War mind you were gonna
talk a lot about this there are certain parts of our history where there are
people groups interests that kind of patrol the intellectual universe and make
sure everything stays on the rails that no one is challenging that which has
become part of our culture and if they do there’s someone there to respond there are heritage groups out there that issue are used to at least issue heritage violations for such
behavior or more commonly when you challenge one of these little nuggets of
wisdom or conventional wisdom what happens your labeled or the idea is labeled
unproductive divisive revisionist there is a word that’s thrown around a lot
these days and the greatest of all was politically correct thats the buzz word today of course so our culture reacts to these
challenges to our our precious and treasured simplicities much as your body
reacts to an infection where the white blood cells swarm in trying to kill
it and we see that every day pick up the newspaper every day you see that but here’s the
great irony of all this and that is that it is our immense commitment to
conventional wisdom and maintaining sustaining the simplicities in our past
it’s that commitment that invites almost begs challenge begs argument our
commitment to simplicity provokes people to argue for complexity so our history
doesn’t sit on a pillow in a museum isn’t embodied by a monument
simply on a battlefield or Mamie and Dwight’s bedroom instead our history
just rides really this raucous tide this raucous tide that is at your feet as you
sit here this afternoon and in that tide is all sorts of crap which we wish were not there its stumbles its failures failures of
morality its failures of effort its triumphant success it’s all of those
things and it comes to us and carries us forth now I’ve been in this business long
enough to know and I suspect there are a lot of people in this room in this
business a long time as well that almost every bit of conventional wisdom as it
relates to history is either wrong in some significant way or at best incomplete, I mean Gettysburg is a laboratory in conventional wisdom
that over the years we have come to recognize not always the entire story
and so we challenge we debate and when we challenge and debate our precious
simplicities that really ticks people which brings me to the place of the
American Civil War in our culture today I would suggest to you that no historic
event in our nation’s history has a more carefully shaped often manipulated past
that has been conveyed into culture than the American Civil War there’s no event
in American history that we argue more about the Civil War for the last
year has been at the center of a national argument that spreads through
every component of American society but you know what so did the Civil War at the time we can
agree on the Civil War’s name think about that how many names of the Civil War can
you think in your mind Civil War War Between the states yes War of Northern Aggression a very popular one these days the War of the Rebellion which is the
official US Government name for the Civil War or at least it used to be I don’t think the government really has an
official name for it anymore but it was at one time the War for Southern Independence, the War for Emancipation, the Second American Revolution and probably a couple dozen
more that you can think of now each of those people who would sit and tell you
this was the War of Northern Aggression will defend that view till the end was it you were farmer near
Fredericksburg Virginia it sure was but we will get into that a little bit more little bit
later so today as we kind of survey where this war of our sits in our
culture at this very important time to consider the question Id like to engage
you or at least provoke you perhaps maybe that’s not the best word inspire you to think lets not do provoke lets inspire you to think some questions about this
war now as we get going into this some of these questions may seem a little bit
scattered and disjointed to you but bear with me will bring them
together at the end so think about this think about this
why is that that America the United States of America a society that likes to see
itself as non militaristic and I think the American people do not see their
nation as generally as a militaristic endeavor why is it that America formally
preserves more Civil War battlefield land then it’s likely the rest of the
world combined preserves for all wars ever fought since the beginning of time have you ever thought about that I
believe it’s true European nations don’t preserved battlefield land in the same
way that we do i’m talking bout formally perpetually protected not a
cemetery but so that you can go out and do what you do here we preserve more of
it than the rest of the world combined for all wars I suggest to you something of
an answer and let’s go back to say 1880 one of the remarkable things about the
American Civil War is the reconciliation that followed I mean think about that to do you think in Libya and Syria
they’re going to be putting up monuments to Qaddafi and Assad someday if they
happen if Assad happens to lose in the United States Capitol today are seven
statues to individuals who participated in a significant way in the War of the
Rebellion the War of Northern aggression whatever you want to call it that
bespeaks a reconciliation that’s almost unprecedented really in the history of
the world certainly in the last couple centuries how did that happen well reconciliation takes place many ways
of course there’s been a lot written about them but one of the ways is by
finding common ground finding things both victors and the defeated can agree
about in the aftermath and to build upon and in the United States of America without
question one of those things the north and south came to agree upon after the
war is that their soldiers fought nobly and whether northern soldiers or southern
soldiers displayed characteristics that every American
could and can embrace as classically American these battlefields became places
not of conflict so much but of comfort for an America a
nation looking for common ground and we did it by emphasizing that shared
experience of the soldier and seeing the war almost entirely through the lens of
the men who fought it and so the places where they fought assume preeminent
significance in our culture and they still do because these places represent
something that we see as classically American today now I would suggest you
that here are the roots if you will our intense preference for a singular
cultivated memory of the Civil War a memory clearly bent on reconciliation
which entailed in turn finding ways to honor not just soldiers of the US but
also the Confederacy as well so how deep does this go at Manassas the Sons of Confederate Veterans
acquired the core of the battlefield in the early 20th century but in 1935 the
Sons of Confederate Veterans found that found the reality that many nonprofits
discover it’s easy to acquire something or build something than it is to run it
so in 1935 the Sons of Confederate Veterans said I think we’ll let the park
service do this now as we couldn’t make entrees the $50 a month literally to
keep the doors open but they can be added to the park
service with this stipulation that the battlefield will be preserving cared for
without prejudice to either north or south and will not detract from quote
the glory do Confederate heroes at the dedication of the park that I work at
Fredericksburg the great dedication speech said we dedicate these fields to
a more perfect understanding between the south and the north and an abundant
increase in brotherly love and the park service picked this mantle and we carried
forward dutifully Scott Hartwig is here when he and I started we were talking on a
drive a few months ago when we started almost the same time in the park service
and what a different world it was at that time it was a world where we went
out and focused on the details of battle and we didn’t much worry about why they
mattered what they meant to the nation we have always tended to look at history
through the narrow ends of the binoculars Alan Nevins the great
historian once wrote that when you do history you either need to go from the
general to the particular the general to the specific or particular to the
general but never from the general to the general or the particular to the
particular because neither have meaning without the other and yet if I had a big
pair of binoculars I’d pass around right now we look through a pair of binoculars as
closely as we can to see the detail Gettysburg of course is the king of detail where
we know almost every detail of what what happened here but hardly ever do we turn the
binoculars around what happens when you turn the binoculars around get just the
opposite you get an expansive wide view not as much detail we hardly ever on
a practical level look through the other end of the binoculars but for a metaphor on a
Saturday afternoon in Gettysburg it works great to look through that other
end of the binoculars to see the bigger the bigger picture so we’ve been focused
so tightly on the deeds of the men the acts of the men the struggles of the men
all of which are worthy things for us to consider and understanding but not
spend a whole lot of time looking through the other end of the binoculars the
park service has helped facilitate through no ill will and in fact no reason our
way to criticize it the nation’s very personal relationship with the Civil War
millions of Americans are descended from Civil War soldiers so we’ve been part of
this and let me just tell you a story that shows you how this phenomenon
is seen by others three years ago four years ago I was doing a tour in downtown
Fredericksburg of sites related to slaves and slavery I was doing it for
three historically black churches in town in my uniform going along places
that people had seen constantly but had never really thought about a lot of oh
that’s really interesting in that something but about half way through the
talk and older gentleman one of the elders of one of the church’s said can you come over here and he pulled me aside off into a little corner where no one would hear and he said to me are you gonna get in trouble for doing
this and I said what do you mean he said I didn’t think you’re allowed to do this kind of
I thought you were only allowed to talk about soldiers I realized at that moment
what a chasm exists and how we are perceived as focusing even tighter
sometimes in some people’s eyes this narrow view of history so here’s a
question for you fifty years ago we celebrated the
centennial of the civil war that was the word thrown around everywhere I think we
went to great lengths not to use that word for the sesquicentennial
what’s the difference why was it seemingly fine and acceptable and not
entirely unquestioned but at least accepted that we would celebrate the
centennial of an event that wrenched our nation and took three quarters of a
million lives but in 50 years hence took a rather different approach to the whole
thing so any thoughts on that what’s happened we have civil rights
movement yes we have women who hold a decidedly different place in society we
have have a Vietnam War a Gulf War a Gulf War
a war in Afghanistan all of which which have led us to question the role that
war has played in our society in our nation but none of those things were really
terribly debated in 1961 but let me just throw out an idea to you and it comes
not from 1981 of it comes from 1998 if I remember correctly quote from a man many
of you probably know or knew who has passed away Jerry Russell the great hero
of battlefield preservation in America in many respects and a great defender of
the narrow view of War I think he was a tremendous opponent to this museum here if I’m not mistaken spoke often against it and
this is what he said the nation’s future and survival rests upon all Americans
having a shared experience a shared understanding of American history a
shared language and a shared culture a culture that unites us not one that divides us which sounds very sounds good but so here’s a question shared memory shared history whose
memory whose history who wins in that transaction in America traditionally the answer to that is
obvious and it was manifested dominantly through the centennial but by the
sesquicentennial there was a great deal of debate about whose history we’re actually gonna tell so a nation’s history of course
always reflects those who have power and when more people have power as is the
case today our history becomes much more complicated and that’s very difficult
for those who formerly held a singular hold on that power so what we see as historians
some but also everyday people like that man on the tour with me in very subtle
ways challenging what traditionally the park service has done or that we as a
people have done because I firmly believe the park service does not lead
the park service reflects the values of society so we have a world in which many
of our cherished simplicities are being challenged slavery was not benign was
not on its last legs a great tenet of nineteenth-century
America is that slavery would have ended anyway it really wasn’t that bad after
all the Emancipation Proclamation was not
meaningless you still hear that a fair amount some of you in this room might believe that that’s the
case we can show pretty clearly historians can that that’s simply not the case Grant was not simply a butcher Lee though
noble was hardly the a political soul that we like to portray him to be Lincoln’s views on slavery emancipation evolved overtime changed as the war went on and the
sentiment of the people changed so we have seen in our lifetime our history
turned away from simplicities toward complexities and we struggle with that but we
shouldn’t be surprised Americans have always challenged America
to be better that’s what we do it’s noisy its ungraceful sometimes it’s just
unproductive but that’s what we do sometimes challenges come from think
tanks and universities sometimes it comes from people like you sometimes it comes from people who have
not had a voice before and I would suggest to you that this process of
challenging through the use of history through our own observation and
interaction with our own culture in the here and now this is what renders what
was acceptable to one generation not acceptable to the next there has never
been a generation in American history whose parents thought they were right
and yet every generation has been part of this tide with all of its eddies and
all of its flotsam but that tide carries us forward so since the
centennial we changed and so our relationship with history has as well so
here’s another question for you why on God’s earth do we argue a hundred and
fifty years after the fact whether or not why we do argue so strenuously
whether or not slavery caused the Civil W ar once a
month at least if not more often and a paper in Fredericksburg Virginia there
is a letter to the editor on this topic and there has been since I got their 21 years ago and when there’s one there’s more why do we
argue about this some of you might say well because it wasn’t it’s not true I’m not going to argue
the virtue or foibles of that particular idea but let me suggest this to if you
roll back the time to the secession debates of 1860 1861 and you sat down
with a South Carolinian or Georgian or a Virginian or even some Marylanders
and said to them you know we really know that this has nothing to do
with slavery we know that it’s OK and they would have looked at you and said “what?” in the process of
public discourse it was the dominant topic of conversation but listen to this a woman
named Edelia Dunivan who was a secretary general of the United Daughters of the
Confederacy in 1902 gave a speech to the gathering in that organization and this
is what she said what lies before us is not loyalty to memories but loyalty to
principles not building up monuments but the vindication of the men of the
Confederacy and the pledge given no I’m not picking on these people this is this
is something that was a product of their times the pledge given by the Sons of
Confederate Veterans is a mandate given to the Sons by the then commander of the
Confederate Veterans Organizations Stephen D. Lee to you Sons of Confederate Veterans we commit
the vindication of the cause for which we fought it appears online over 4,000 times if you google that thought and then John Gordon who of course fought famously
here at Gettysburg wrote in this era of reconciliation he said the unseemly
things which occurred in the great conflict between the states should be
forgotten or at least forgiven and no longer permitted to disturb the complete
harmony between north and south hold in perpetual remembrance all that was
great and good both sides so there is the ultimate call for the narrow view
through the binoculars to see only the great and good so ok we get that we hear
that what’s the corollary of only talking about the great and the
good there is a great deal that’s left out of the story that’s forgotten one of the things
and I dont say this originally it was not an original thought with me but our
memories national personal otherwise entail a great deal of forgetting and
here is a clarion call to forget purposely in America largely did they
forgot your left out of this story things like the causes of the war the
legacy of Reconstruction which for African-Americans there’s no period in
American history in the south is viewed more negatively than the period of
reconstruction for African-Americans it was the only great period of hope in
America’s experience between 1619 and 1954 a powerful positive story for that
perspective but no reconstruction was left out and all of this of course this extends
into today’s discourse of our own society about our own our own world not terribly recently and I think it was in connection with this
discussion over the museum here a Confederate a very ardent defender of
Confederate heritage said this we don’t need to give visitors an entire history
of the antebellum South so they come away with the idea that one side with
the villain my point isn’t to argue that my point is to point out that we take
this very serious or very personally still think about that there’s no other event
beyond our memories that has constituent groups that patrol the intellectual universe, the only one I’m aware of the DAR you might argue but they don’t really their role is a different one so I would
suggest you that it is America’s personal connection to the war that
renders are grappling with it so difficult and causes us to look through
the narrow end of the binoculars so if slavery caused the war or was a primary or
central cause of the war which I think most legitimate historians agree on that
it was central to the provoking secession which in turn caused the
war if slavery is central to that conversation what does that say about
your Confederate ancestor does it make you uncomfortable it is for many as we see over and over
again but I hope we get to the point and I was taught this by a woman in
Fredericksburg who happens to be the mayor who has a family history that includes
slave sellers and slave buyers street fights all sorts of interesting things
that she doesn’t see as a testament to her she sees that as the testament on her
ancestors’ times and think about this think about our lives I don’t know how
many of you have teenagers America’s been dealing with the issue of gay
rights for years if you have teenagers chances are they look at you and say what’s the problem in
fifty or sixty years people are going to look back on us who Imean I didn’t have a conscious
thought about gay rights until I was probably thirty years old it was not a part
of my consciousness as a child and people are gonna look back sixty or
seventy years from now and say well what were you doing what you thinking some of them are gonna
say well you must have been evil well of course we’re not part of that tide and
sometimes we our ancestors lived in times are difficult and history will
show that we live in times and we can only hope that our successors look back
and judge us not necessarily personally but as products of our time so did the
Union soldiers who marched through and then back through Gettysburg on July 1st
1863 march for freedom how many of you think and we’ll see how many of you think that
and mind you some of these soldiers were from you know neighborhoods in in Albany
New York or Boston from New York City which would be engulfed in riots that
were racially based here in just a few weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg
many of them hated black people couldn’t care a whit about slavery but when they
march through town here that they march for freedom how many of you think they
did zero let me ask this how many of you believe that Confederate
soldiers who came through this town in 1863 marched to sustain slavery in
America a tiny minority of you although I think if I stopped talking numbers would have
continued to increase a few hands went up here and there so if you worked at a Civil War
site for any amount of time you’ve had this conversation with the person who
walks in the door and sees an exhibit on a wall about slavery suggesting a nexus
between slavery secession and war or sees your movie here I bet it happens every day at
Gettysburg happens almost every day at our place my ancestor lived in the Shenandoah Valley he fought for the Confederacy he didn’t own a slave he hated slavery so clearly this war
was not about slavery and you’re wrong to say it is this happens certainly probably every day
here in some way shape or form I would guess because we say the war was about
slavery and imply that it was what does that say about your ancestor
your Confederate ancestor that he fought to preserve it well we don’t like to believe that I would suggest to you that for that no other
event in American history have we as a people permitted the personal motivations of
the participants embodied in men like their Confederate ancestor from the
Shenandoah Valley that I just made up we permit their personal our presumptions
about their personal motivation to define why this war was fought no other period of American history do we
do that and I would suggest to you that it is a pure function of personal connections Americans have with the war enduring connections and therefore the discomfort
that there is in conceding such a point so what about this man at a meeting or
public program in Spotsylvania a couple of years ago a public conversation
pretty raucous about race memory of the war a gentleman stood up a member of the school
board longtime family in Fredericksburg and he said I want to get it right said
the war the Civil War is simply in the place of our management of it is simply
a mechanism to glorify the Confederacy it’s a tool he said to help sustain
white supremacy in america and to him and he said the Confederacy is toxic so what is the
difference between that man’s view in your view with your great-great
grandfather from the Shenandoah Valley one has a personal connection but that’s not enough to explain
so I’d like to make the distinction and you that you will consider it Nations people individuals go off to war
for a thousand different reasons you can take tick them off adventure for money and go
after patriotism many go up in response to a crisis because it’s a family
tradition because their father did it a million different reasons but nations
nations go to war not for a million different reasons but usually for one or two or three very
specific reasons that are usually understood well by all who participate so was that non slave holding soldier
from the Shenandoah Valley motivated by the desire to sustain white supremacy in
America maybe you’re right maybe they weren’t
chances are probably not but was the Confederacy was its national intent or
purpose in engaging in this war to sustain white supremacy in America
slavery demonstrably factually absolutely its in the constitution its the only significant
difference between the Confederate Constitution and the United States
Constitution and then term limits and some other things and what we see in America
today evermore and one reason that people
squirm so much is because more and more Americans see this war not through the
personal connections of ancestors but through the lens of why each side chose
to go to war what were the policies what was the culture each side sought to
sustain and if you look at the Confederacy through that lens and I
would argue that that angry gentleman who saw the Confederacy as
toxic in fact I talked to him in the grocery store about three weeks later he saw the
Confederacy not through the warm fuzzy haze of an ancestor but as an entity
whose purpose was to perpetuate the enslavement of his ancestors was he right? of course he is the Confederacy said that flat out
but instead we have narrowed the lens so that we don’t see that all we see is the
face the hands the soul of ancestors sometimes but if we turn the lens around
we see something very very different so did the Union soldiers who marched first
through and then back through gettysburg faster coming than they went of course
did that racist and I say that incidentally not all union soldiers were racist of course but was that dock worker from South Boston fighting to free the slaves
demonstrably factually absolutely it was a policy of the government that he served to end
slavery by virtue of the Emancipation Proclamation was he motivated by it maybe
not was his nation motivated to go to war and to sustain the war more
importantly because of that absolutely but we struggle with that so we deal with memory we deal with
these large issues as historians we have an avalanche of scholarship that comes onto
our desks into your book shelves every day if you look for it if you’re willing
to read that questions these cherished simplicities that we have carried forth
and so here’s a question for you and it relates us people in this room in
uniform and those that you see who worked at Civil War sites are we
memorialists committed to memory or are we historians what role do we play now being
influenced by the whims and desires and perogatives of descendants is not unique to
Civil War sites have you ever been to LBJ National Historical Park in Texas
you don’t think the family or the park staff there doesn’t occasionally think I
wonder what the thinks about this you think at Jimmy Carter or at Eisenhower Selma to Montgomery
Little Bighorn all of these sites exist on negotiated sometimes contested ground
when we take these places we do so with a tacit understanding that we will
somehow honor and not demolish the memory and legacy of those from whom we
accept it seems true with the Civil War the nation created these parks with
sometimes an explicit commitment to commemorate the memory and preserve the
memory of those who were here so it is a windy perch as you can
imagine to have a conversation like this in a
place like this that traditionally has been seen as one of
honor but let me tell you that the narrow lens of history when we forget we
can say things that are hurtful we can do things that are hurtful but you know
what by forgetting things we can be hurtful
as well and I would suggest to you that this in terms of this question of
whether we are historians or memorialists we are both but we cannot
be historians willing to forget selectively and that of course is what
we often do so I wanna wrap up here with a few questions for you to ponder and
then a few remarks to close with so here’s some questions think about them will we as a nation be
able to distinguish between honoring the Confederates and honoring the
Confederacy and you do one without the other here’s another question in thirty years will the National Park Service manage a
site in Caroline County Virginia about 20 miles south of Fredericksburg called
the Stonewall Jackson Shrine we’ll manage the site but will it be called the Stonewall
Jackson shrine can he honor an memorialize Confederate soldiers and by
implication the Confederacy and still hope to engage African-American community in the war’s legacy its powerful legacy of freedom a story that by and large the
African-American community at least in Fredericksburg is separated from by
miles here’s a final question can you lament the defeat of the Confederacy as
many Americans do can you lament the defeat of the Confederacy and still
love America so three years ago I gave a program to an elder study group seniors still engaged
very active and my program was on slavery in Fredericksburg not a very
controversial program at all well for the fun of it I asked them at
the end this was in 2008 now I asked them at the end so who do you think I voted
for in the election 80 percent of them when we got to Obama eighty percent of them put
their hands up in the air now think about that think how interesting it is how
interesting it is that a group of people thinking smart people would conclude our
come to a conclusion about my political inclinations because I just
gave a talk about slavery why is that so one of the things that we do is
we accord motive to people who challenged our simplicities that we
love so much we make assumptions about them its divisive its provision its liberal
politically incorrect or even politically motivated I suspect there
are some of you in this audience today who may be steaming and what you’re
hearing steaming that this man talking about history has decided to inject his
own political opinions I don’t think I’ve said it once you have no idea voted in 2008 you have no idea about
this time around of course I’m not sure any of us really do but isn’t that interesting that simply the act of talking about a piece of history that we as a
nation chosen to bargain will inspire some people to suggest that there is a political motivation behind it so the the American
Civil War what is it, it is America’s costliest human tragedy probably the bloodiest
emancipation in the history of the world it is the confirmation of the American
Union as we know it it’s a milestone moment
along America’s meandering journey toward freedom justice and equality and
there is no mistaking that in the arc of American history that we are on a journey
always trends toward freedom and justice and equality it’s not a straight line
there is no mistaking that from the very beginning to this very day the Civil War
is the foundation from which our nation emerged as a world power it is the
greatest demonstration of the virtues and the foibles of democracy and it’s
perhaps the greatest demonstration of the virtues and foibles and successes
and failures of our nation all intertwined in one place and these are
things that have shaped the lives of every American for more than a hundred
and fifty years it shapes the lives of our world today and yet within our quest to simplify it
all we have immense numbers of Americans who simply don’t engage in the story that we by choice
have decided to disengage them not we here today but our nation over time and I
would say to you the problem people always get impatient about how people
are interested in the Civil War and we’re all crazy well there are some of us who are but they’re always amazed that in fact
you often hear in academia kind of in exasperation with the public
interest in the Civil War but I would tell you based on the list that I just
read you are too few Americans have an interest in this war rather than far too
many so let’s go back and this is my concluding little passage here here to that list
of means that we’ve talked about a couple of times the Civil War the War
Between the States the War of Northern Aggression the War of the Rebellion the
War
for the Union the War for Emancipation I think as we discuss it’s easy to see how
to somebody to some group the war was all of those things and yet part of our
challenge and what we’d like to do is to assert the primacy of one over the other
but there’s a lot of pieces of our history that we can lay out and just let
them be as the war was all of those things at various times each of those
names represents a perfectly valid perspective on this world changing story
but the problem is we keep throwing barriers into those in front of those
people who do not see the war through the lens that we have chosen for ourselves
we do it over and over again the war was a war for freedom it may not have
started for that but it sure ended as that and that’s ok we should hope more Americans not fewer Americans
see it as such it was a war in some ways for more limited federal government
that’s ok we still argue about that today so I’ll
close with one little last thought when you look through the binoculars the narrow lens you see tremendous detail where you can’t see anything coming or going
to see belt buckles you see eyes you see hearts you see faces but you can see nothing else
but if you turn the binoculars around and look through the wide lens, you won’t see the detail but maybe you might actually see
yourself as part of it

8 thoughts on “Freedom, the Civil War, and Its Complicated Legacy (Lecture)

  • npgtom Post author

    Please note, No one cares about your personal sports rooting interests.

  • Tervicz Post author

    Let me give you something to add and think about: 19-year-old corporal Heinz is in his bunker over at Omaha beach shooting at your ancestor. Behind his back lies his home country where his family lives, where his home is, where his girlfriend or his wife is with a baby on the way. His brothers and cousins and probably his father also serve, dead or alive, there and at the Eastern Front. His father served in ww1, his great grandfather during the Franco-Prussian war and more ancestors served the nation through its history. He's about to be killed by a shell from a destroyer off shore. He may or may not be aware of what his government did and does at the time, maybe he even participated in some of those acts having been born and raised in his time with this mindset. Should a monument exist where he and his comrades died, maybe even with the battle flag he fought under, to honour his bravery? Should we honour his battle flag?

  • Pat Young Post author

    Great talk.

  • D Benny Post author

    Great Lecture on Historical Memory. It will be interesting to see how the Park Service reflects the changes in historical perspective at the sites that deal with Reconstruction and the Civil War.

  • nige nomates Post author

    ive watched all these talks now and this is the finest by some distance. The delivery and honesty and its confrontational nature, set it apart. As a non American, the oddest thing about much of this series, is all these white people discussing the civil war's effect on African Americans. Does no one of color work for the Parks Service? Doesn't Black opinion on this matter? Middle class white people talking dispassionately, politically correctly and academically about events of great pain for the colored population, lack credibility and balance and seems totally condescending. Are you so afraid of what they might say? i say again, does no one of color work for the Parks Service?

  • Demian Haki Post author

    Great talk, very nuanced. It seems that two points really need to be embraced to come to terms with this war:

    a) Separate national/state intentions for the war from intentions/motives of individuals soldiers, who may or may not have been decent people.

    b) Stop defining one's comtemporary personal&social self-esteem by people & societies of the past. We live in the here and now, and the past is only relevant when our current opportunities are still affected by the legacy of the past. If it is, then we need to show how and we need to remedy the long-lasting effects of past injustices. If there is no longer a noticeable effect on contemporary personal opportunities & it's just a matter of personal & cultural self-esteem connected to past events & ancestors, we need to let that go. We can study it, admire it, condemn it, but we should not reasonably base our own value and sense of self on sth that people 100 years ago did. We are our own person today & our value and self-esteem will be defined by who we are today.

  • Liberty Post author

    Corwin Amendment. Supported by Lincoln and likely to be ratified if the South stayed in the Union. Yet, they still left. There are way too many holes in the argument that this was all about slavery. Yet, like those that contend that certain issues are "settled science", you present this as if the debate is settled. It is not.

  • Mike Lovin Post author

    This is one of the worst lectures that I have ever seen.

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